The Knack’s Doug Fieger died of lung cancer earlier this week. Though he may be best known among politicos as the younger brother of Michigan’s 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nominee and Jack Kevorkian lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, Doug Fieger saved rock ‘n’ roll more than thirty years ago.
In the late 1970s, there was no escaping disco. To put disco’s dominance into perspective, members of the Gibb family occupied the top spot on the Billboard Top 100 chart for 28 of the 52 weeks between July 30, 1977 and July 29, 1978. In the year prior to The Knack’s takeover of the top spot on Billboard‘s Hot 100, the only #1 songs that could be categorized as embracing a rock style were Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” and The Doobie Brothers’s “What a Fool Believes” — which Billboard magazine accused, perhaps unfairly, of “jumping on [the] disco bandwagon.”
To the frustration of their hardcore fans, established rock acts adopted an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach to prevailing trends. Rod Stewart found number one again with “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” the most maligned rock crossover, rivaled only by Kiss’s shameless 1979 hit “I Was Made for Loving You.” Musical chameleons The Rolling Stones, who had earlier aped Gram Parsons on “Honky Tonk Woman” and T. Rex on “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” enjoyed their final stay at the top of the singles chart with 1978’s disco-infused “Miss You.” Incorporating a rollicking high-hat and tight, chicken-scratch chords ensured that Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” enjoyed four weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1980. Blondie, coming out of New York’s punk scene, ironically lost little in street credibility when they hit #1 with the 1979 disco song “Heart of Glass.”
Partly on the strength of the disco-drenched “(I Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” The Kinks scored the highest charting studio album of their career with “Low Budget.” ELO for all intents and purposes became a full-fledged disco act for several years. The disco-ball mesmerized Queen, David Bowie, and Roxy Music into embracing the latest musical fad.
When not permeating rock radio, disco permeated pop culture. Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” provided the Pittsburgh Pirates a ubiquitous theme song for their 1979 championship run. It invaded the silver screen through 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. Disco wasn’t just music. It was a lifestyle that guided fashion tastes (leisure suits, roller skates, polyester pants), where to go on weekend nights, and what chemicals to ingest, imbibe, and inhale: in — cocaine, poppers, Quaaludes; out — pot, acid, beer.
So, in the summer of 1979, an oversaturated public was rife for a rebellion against the gods of pop culture. Aggressive shirts, boasting such slogans as “Disco Sucks” and “Death to Disco,” began appearing on young inebriated mustachioed ruffians. On June 12, 1979, the pandemonium at Disco Demolition Night at standing-room-only Comiskey Park became so uncontrollable that the Chicago White Sox forfeited the second game of a double-header against the Detroit Tigers.
Riding this cultural tsunami, The Knack’s “My Sharona” hit number one on August 25, 1979. It stayed there through September, making it Billboard’s top song of 1979.
Outside of the context of the late 1970s, there is little remarkable about the song Doug Fieger sang and co-wrote. It offers an infectious bass line, a slightly less catchy guitar riff, and universally accessible lyrics about the pursuit of a pretty girl that together occasionally erupt in a saccharine power-pop crescendo (“My, My, My…Wooo!”). You could dance to it, just not in a leisure suit beneath a mirror ball amidst a cloud of amyl nitrate.
But in the context of the late 1970s, a lust song backed by simple guitar, bass, and drums stood out. The Knack eschewed not only the pretentiousness that led pop musicians to compose “rock operas” about King Arthur, but the amateurism that resulted in a “punk” movement of nasty untalented dilettantes more interested in insulting the mainstream than in producing listenable music. “My Sharona” was as much a rebellion against stale rock as it was against vapid disco. The Knack aimed for the mainstream that disco had captured and rock had abandoned. Capitol Records, which had marketed them as the next Beatles, was only too happy to aid The Knack in their commercial crusade to conquer the music world.
Preceding its six-week reign atop the charts, number ones included Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” and Chic’s “Good Times.” By week five of its reign, “My Sharona” had purged the entire top ten of disco. The Knack’s “My Sharona” made Billboard‘s #1 spot safe for Steve Miller, The J. Geils Band, Men at Work, Joan Jett, and other rock acts that would top the charts in its wake.
Disco certainly persisted, boasting chart toppers as late as 1981. But it never regained its late seventies stature atop the music world. It survived by influencing other genres (club, pop, rap), but as a distinct genre it largely disappeared by the early 1980s.
Pre-“My Sharona,” rock acts appropriated signature scratchy guitars, rolling hi-hats, dance-groove bass lines, and even the symphonic strings and happy horns that characterized Club 54’s playlist. Post-“My Sharona,” disco acts denied their genre. Like hair bands Poison and Cinderella post-grunge, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Village People, and Chic struggled for an audience after “My Sharona” had left its mark.
The post-punk attitude that condemned rock musicians who found a popular audience as “sell outs” condemned the overhyped Knack to obscurity. Ironically, the same purists who cringed at The Kinks or The Stones adding a disco song to their oeuvre, and thus laid the groundwork for the success of a back-to-basics rock song such as “My Sharona,” looked askance at any band, such as The Knack, that had achieved mainstream success. The Knack released two other top forty hits — including, notably, “Good Girls Don’t” — and faded into rock lore.
More than thirty years after “My Sharona” hit number one, the Billboard singles chart is more of a cultural wasteland than the one that Doug Fieger and company confronted in the summer of 1979. The absence of a “My Sharona”-style song to break through the pop juggernaut today makes one appreciate what The Knack accomplished over three decades ago.